Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:04 - Released 12/25/98

I suppose every season has to have one cancer-related tear-jerker to give a boost to the Kleenex sales figures. The thing is, we already have one: Meryl Streep's September vehicle, One True Thing, tells a similar story and does it better. Chris Columbus's Stepmom features excellent acting by Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, and Ed Harris, and also fine work by child actors Jena Malone (Contact) and Liam Aiken (The Object Of My Affection), but it lacks something the Streep film has: a script. That Columbus was able to turn out such fine work with such an openly manipulative text is noteworthy.

Luke (Harris) and Jackie (Sarandon) have two great kids, but they just couldn't hold their marriage together. Their split-up was difficult for 12-year-old Anna (Malone) and gradeschooler Ben (Aiken), but the fact that their dad has hooked up with young Isabel (Roberts) makes it clear that any hope of a parental reconciliation is a pipe dream. Isabel, a talented ad photographer who admits that she never wanted to be a mother, tries her best to please Luke's kids when she's with them. But her unorganized style is a sharp contrast to Jackie's model of efficiency, and the kids react with resentment when she gets up late and fails to have them ready in time for school. The open hostility between Jackie and Isabel doesn't help the situation, and it looks as if the kids are being put in the middle of a war between the moms.

After a few parental successes by Isabel and a few minor failures by Jackie, an uneasy detente arises. Then a bombshell lands on both fronts: Jackie is diagnosed with cancer, and Luke and Isabel plan to marry. Faced with the fact that Isabel may soon be the only mom in the picture, the entire family must find a way to deal with a very uncomfortable situation.

The fault with Gigi Levangie's screenplay (her debut effort) is not so much the story, but the dialogue. It's clear they were trying, but even these actors can't overcome cloying lines like, "Mommy, if you want me to hate her, I will." And the fact that Levangie had a half dozen other writers helping her didn't help. The choice to use cancer to get the ocular juices flowing is not only an overused technique, but it's already been done this year in the aforementioned Thing. This story could have supported itself as a simple mother/stepmother conflict; throwing in the c-word makes it too easy.

The best thing about this film are the relationships. The animosity-to-mutual-respect path taken by Isabel and Jackie is ridiculously simple (Jackie is too villainous at first; Isabel too sympathetic), but they're so good they make us believe it anyway. The kids are beautiful; though Aiken never really hits the resentment against Isabel that is called for in the script, his delivery is astoundingly real for a kid his age, and his pie-face smile is absolutely irresistable. The connection between him and Malone is perfect sibling ambivalence. Columbus clearly works well with kids; his success here is similar to that of the other kid-related movies he has helmed, such as Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. Harris, though a good actor, is not really given much to do; his role is as a buffer between the ladies and the kids, and he is not even present during much of the film's midsection.

The final reel is certainly not short of watery-eyed goodness, some of which is justified, some wrenched out cheaply and shamelessly. But Stepmom is almost worth seeing, if only for the performances. And John Williams's music adds emotion with a subtlety that is seriously lacking in the script. ***½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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